During an emergency: Getting children out of harm's way

Saturday October 20, 2012

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of stories dealing with emergency preparedness in the 10-mile evacuation zone around Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

BRATTLEBORO -- For many years, parents of school-age children have been concerned where their kids might go if an emergency requiring evacuation was to occur at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon during school hours.

The current plan requires all children to be transported to the Bellows Falls Union High School in Westminster, where they would either be picked up by their parents or assigned to a caregiver.

However, questions have been raised about whether processing the children along with the estimated 6,000 people who might show up at the high school needing shelter would turn the reception center into one big confusing mess for everyone.

Now, the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, which educates all of the children in the towns in the Vermont emergency preparedness zone, is working on a new plan to alleviate the concerns.

(Though Marlboro is in the EPZ, its elementary grade students belong to the Windham Central Supervisory Union, located in Townshend. Elementary school children in Marlboro are to be transported to Twin Valley High School in Wilmington. Its middle and high school students can attend school in Brattleboro or Townshend.)

"From our point of view, the new plan is essentially the current plan, other than sending the students to the reception center," said Ron Stahley, superintendent for WSESU.

About a year-and-a-half ago, the New Hampshire & Vermont Valley Red Cross proposed a new plan. The Red Cross is tasked with working with the reception center to find shelter for those who have no other place to go. Red Cross managers raised concerns similar to those held by parents.

"We met with the Vermont Emergency Management office in Brattleboro and identified schools that we could send the students to," said Stahley.

In a letter to be sent to parents and guardians of children in the WSESU system, any response to an emergency at Vermont Yankee would consist of two actions.

"The first is ‘sheltering-in-place,' which simply means remaining in the building until the emergency is over," states the letter. "If authorities recommend ‘sheltering in place,' doors and windows at schools will be shut, and school personnel will care for children until the emergency is over."

The second action would be a precautionary transfer/evacuation of the schools, a decision which Erica Borneman, VEM's emergency management project specialist, said would not be made lightly.

"In reality, there will be a major discussion first with the towns, the state emergency operations center, school superintendents and law enforcement," she said.

"If the schools are performing a precautionary transfer or evacuation, do not try to pick up children at their school or phone the school," states the letter from WSESU. "The phone lines would be needed for emergency use. All children and staff will be transported primarily by bus to a host school outside the area."

Though negotiations with host schools are ongoing, said Stahley, it is hoped that soon all the details will be ironed out.

Richard Cogliano, VEM's Radiological Emergency Training Coordinator in Brattleboro is working out the kinks in the plan.

"We are reviewing the final drafts and meeting with other superintendents," he said.

Once the plans have been formalized, said Joe Flynn , director of VEM, they will be opened up for public input.

Changes to how school children will be evacuated "is huge," said Herb Meyer, the Emergency Management Director for Guilford.

"This has always been a terrible concern of mine," he said. "Before then no one knew where they were going."

However, no town has been designated for Guilford school children yet.

"I wish there was a firm in-place school that they are going," said Meyer.

Previously, the School Board and the Selectboard wanted to send them to a reception center in the Deerfield Valley, he said, but that location was never established.

"To go to a specific school will be a great relief," said Meyer.

Flynn also addressed another concern expressed by parents -- that enough bus drivers will show up if there is an actual emergency at Yankee.

"We can't guarantee that they will all show up," he said. "But we can guarantee that everything possible will be done to make up for the people who don't show up. We have a list of people, agencies and organizations that can be called upon."

In the letter, Stahley assured parents that the emergency response plan has been in effect for many years, with review and modifications made on a regular basis.

"We have practiced parts of it annually," states the letter. "Every site in WSESU has a crisis management team in place, and I have regular communications with both regional and state emergency managers."

In the event of any type of emergency requiring public notification, WTSA 96.7 or WKVT 92.7 are the designated alert radio stations.

"Further, WSESU has adopted AlertNow as its rapid communication system, designed specifically for the K-12 community that addresses the needs of schools to communicate quickly and efficiently with members of the school and broader community," states the letter. "AlertNow's technology delivers voice, e-mail, and emergency messages to parents and staff in the event of an emergency situation."

If an emergency started before the beginning of the school day, school would be canceled, as it is when there is danger of a winter storm.

The plan in the towns in the EPZ in Massachusetts is similar to that being developed in Vermont, said Peter Judge, public information officer for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

Pioneer Valley students and most other schools in the EPZ would be transported to Greenfield Community College in case of an emergency, said Peter Judge, the public information officer for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. There they would await their parents or guardians, he said.

Students from Gill Elementary would go to Turners Falls High School and those from Leyden, Northfield-Mt. Hermon and Giving Tree Pre-School would go to UMass Amherst.

Though the Warwick, Mass., town school is not in the EPZ, the town's plan calls for its evacuation, said James Erviti, Warwick's EMD.

"It assauges a lot of parents' fears to know their kids are going to Greenfield," he said.

Children in the New Hampshire portion of the EPZ will be sent to a reception center at Keene High School, said James Van Dongen, public information officer for the New Hampshire Department of Safety, Bureau of Emergency Management.

In Monday's Reformer, the Red Cross' role in any emergency is presented.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.


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